Bach’s Saint John Passion program

19 March 2016 8:00 p.m. at Church of the Incarnation

The Dallas Bach Society
James Richman, Artistic Director

BWV 245 (LEIPZIG 1723)

Dann Coakwell, Evangelist
David Grogan, Jesus
Nicholas Garza, Servus
Audrey Brown, Ancilla
Charles Moore, Pilatus
Jason Awbrey, Petrus
Claire Daniels, Soprano
Agnes Vojtko, Alto
Nicholas Garza, Tenor
Patrick Gnage, Bass

About the Program:

To herald his arrival in Leipzig in 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a dramatic setting of the story of Christ’s final hours which he called his Johannes-Passion, or Passion According to Saint John. No doubt anxious to establish from the outset his complete mastery of church music, he made the work an outpouring of human emotions surrounding the sacred story, depicting in lively settings the voice of Christ, the message of the Evangelist, as well as the human feelings of the chorus, who from time to time represent the pious Christian congregation, the forces of the Roman Empire, and the angry crowd of Jews desperate to have Christ crucified.

This multiplicity of roles for the chorus is entirely in keeping with he practice in Baroque opera, where the chorus as a rule took on whatever identity of massed characters was called for, turning from courtiers to soldiers, peasants, or exotic nations, without so much as a costume change! The illustration of character and emotion took precedence, and standard stage dress would be altered usually by no more than a character symbol held by each chorister. As Bach wrote no opera, having made the decision to devote himself to the perfection of church music, his two great passions in effect represent this genre for us in his complete works. It is in these compositions that his most telling examples of Baroque characterization are found, and they are indeed powerful.

The obvious problem with such dramatic works was that everyone already knew the story, and how it would end. Thus the elements of suspense and surprise are not available, and indeed Bach opens the second half of Saint John with a Chorale which tells virtually the entire plot in a few bars. It is a sign of his consummate power as a composer that it matters not at all that we know what will happen, as his illustration of it in sound is so moving that it draws our attention in and of itself.

Bach uses the devices of the opera to teach this holy lesson, with the addition of the unusual character of the apostle himself telling the story, as in the Bible. This role of the Evangelist, however, derives directly from the “Mercury” characters in other operas, always a high tenor, a messenger telling us a narrative, only here made into the most important character aside from Jesus himself. Jesus is represented by the bass voice, in keeping with the Baroque norm for all gods, sorcerers and the like (through Mozart’s Sarastro in the Magic Flute), but especially meaningful for Bach as the fundamental bass, from which grows all music like an overtone series. When the bass is missing in Bach, and the high overtone chromatics dominate, we are usually far from the Lord!

The arias are also employed as in opera, taking time out from the action to give us a picture of the state of mind and emotions of the solo singer, here representing a member of the Christian people. In Saint John, these are mostly contemplative on the part of various Christian people affected by aspects of the story, and range from the naive apostle singing “I follow you with joyous steps” with the sound of innocent flutes, to the extremely sad “It is fulfilled” when the death of Jesus is at hand, accompanied by a mournful solo gamba. In the end, however, Bach transcends opera to produce a moving rendition of Biblical Truth, confined by no particular form, but rather using every possible means to transmit the Word in music.

About the Artists:

DANN COAKWELL, Evangelist, tenor, is sought after as a performer of Bach, Handel, and their contemporaries, who specializes in J.S. Bach’s Evangelist and the tenor roles of Benjamin Britten. He can be heard as a soloist on the Grammy-winning Conspirare: The Sacred Spirit of Russia, 2014 (Harmonia Mundi) and Grammy-nominated Conspirare: A Company of Voices, 2009. Coakwell has performed as a soloist internationally and nationally under such acclaimed conductors as Helmuth Rilling, Masaaki Suzuki, William Christie, Nicholas McGegan, Matthew Halls, John Scott, and Craig Hella Johnson. Coakwell has performed multiple times in New York’s Carnegie Hall, and he made his Lincoln Center New York solo debuts at both Alice Tully Hall and Avery Fisher Hall to critical acclaim in 2014. He has appeared as a soloist with organizations such as Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart in Germany, Bach Collegium Japan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco, Oregon Bach Festival, and Conspirare.

DAVID GROGAN, Christus, bass, has performed extensively throughout the southwest, having appeared as a soloist with Dallas-Fort Worth area arts groups such as the Fort Worth Symphony, Dallas Bach Society, Plano Civic Chorus, Denton Bach Society, Texas Baroque Ensemble, Orpheus Chamber Singers, Texas Camerata, Fort Worth Baroque Society, and several Texas universities. Recent performances include the Handel’s Messiah with Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys in NYC, Handel’s Acis and Galatea with Mountainside Baroque in Maryland, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Bass Hall in Fort Worth, TX. The Dallas Morning News hailed Dr. Grogan as the “perfect Christus” after a performance of the Saint Matthew Passion with the Dallas Bach Society. The Albuquerque Tribune, in reference to a performance of Messiah with the New Mexico Symphony, said, “David Grogan had all the range and power required of the part, sounding like the voice of doom in “The people that walked in darkness” and the light of revelation in “The trumpet shall sound.” A performance of Elijah had critics praising his ability to “move easily from stentorian declamation to lyrical aria.” Another critic said that he “….brought an impressive vocal power to the lead role of Elijah, and his rich emotive gift set the level for the other chief performers.” The Dallas Morning News said “His meaty bass shook the heavens and the earth and sounded the trumpet with imposing conviction.”

CLAIRE DANIELS, soprano, is equally at home performing as a soloist, chamber musician, and choral singer. At the 2014 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, she performed with Arethusa Musica in the Young Performer’s Festival, Battle of the Early Bands, and the Fringe. Recently relocated to Dallas, she was soon asked to join the Orpheus Chamber Singers. She has also performed with Ensemble VIII, Texas Early Music Project, ¡Sacabuche!, Bloomington Bach Cantata Project, the University of Texas Chamber Singers, Concentus, Pro Arte Singers, and also portrayed the role of Cupid in John Blow’s Venus and Adonis with the Indiana University Baroque Orchestra. She was a featured soloist on Glad Tidings of Great Joy, a Christmas special aired by Public Radio International. While pursuing a master’s degree in early music performance from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, she studied with Paul Elliott and Mary Ann Hart. She received her undergraduate degree in Choral Music Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.

AGNES VOJTKO, Hungarian mezzo-soprano, has established herself as a versatile and genuine artist both on the operatic and concert stage. Currently she is teaching at Southwestern University while frequently engaged as a concert soloist. Recent appearances include Mahler’s Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with American Bach Soloists, Mass in B Minor and St. Matthew Passion with Dallas Bach Society and concerts with Houston Baroque. Last June she performed Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Schoenberg version) at UC Davis. Agnes has appeared with Austin Lyric Opera, Opera in the Heights and in Hungary with Ars Classica Chamber Opera and Budapest Chamber Opera. After she completed a bachelor’s degree at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, she moved to the United States as a Fulbright fellow to attend The University of Texas at Austin, where she obtained the Doctor of Musical Arts degree under the guidance of Darlene Wiley.

NICHOLAS GARZA, tenor, studied at University of Texas at Arlington as a Vocal Performance major with Jing Ling-Tam and David Grogan. Originally from Harlingen, Texas, Nicholas was a four-year Texas All-State Mixed Choir member, an Outstanding Soloist for Texas State Solo Ensemble, and a Competition winner in Classical Voice/Tenor at the 2010 NFAA YoungARTS. He has performed with Mountainside Baroque in Maryland as the Tenor soloist for the Telemann oratorio Der Tod Jesu and also was alto soloist for the Big Moose Bach Festival in New Hampshire. He worked with noted singer and conductor Simon Carrington as a singing fellow at the 2011 and 2012 Norfolk Chamber Music Festival of Yale University. He performs with many professional groups around the Metroplex including the Dallas Bach Society, Orpheus Chamber Singers, Orchestra of New Spain, the Fort Worth Opera Chorus and Christ the King Catholic Church. He has been called a “stand-out soloist” by the Dallas Morning News and has been hailed for his “appealing tenor, sinewy in the lower register, sweetly soft-edged on high.”

PATRICK J. GNAGE, baritone, studied voice at the Eastman School of Music and holds two degrees in Voice Performance and Literature. Mr. Gnage has been featured as soloist in all of the major oratorios of J.S. Bach, as well as the oratorios and choral works of Handel, Monteverdi, Carissimi, Mozart, Vaughan Williams, and Duruflé, performing with such ensembles as The Publick Musick, Orchestra of New Spain, Rochester Bach Festival Chorus, Concert Royal and the Dallas Bach Society. A new addition to his repertoire this season is the role of Jesus in Bob Chilcott’s version of the St John Passion, heard at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas. Patrick also appears on recordings released by Naxos American Classics and Sonabilis.